2011: Music in Review

Depending on your disposition towards technology and what Simon Reynolds called a "perpetual NOW" (taken from his current book Retromania, my favorite book of the year and one I would highly recommend), we are living in a golden age for music. There are few ways to get around it; a huge confluence of new music in constant flux, coupled with incredible technology, ensures that anyone with a half-decent Internet connection and a taste for the new can be kept up to their necks in any music of their choice. Sub-genres and niches, endlessly splintering factions of styles, rampant experimentation - these are nothing new in this post-post-modern age. Ever since the days of Napster and the dawn of P2P file sharing, music has been taken on a wild carousel, anything at your fingertips, anytime.

There are good things and bad about this endless proliferation. On the positive side, anything ever recorded is available to you in an instant. Gas that Miles Davis passed and was recorded in Switzerland in February 1966 is the crowning jewel of an exhaustive 10-disc box set that chronicles his four-day stay in Montreux. A heretofore-unknown "cute" band from Sheffield gets a triple-disc exposition of their complete B-sides from 1985-87. Whatever you wish for, you can get. On the downside, it is numbing. People download the most obscure and types of music without fully grasping it, sometimes downloading just to have it, to brag about the African thumb cymbal music taking up 2 gigabytes of space on their third 4TB external hard-drive. Casual music fans become polyglots and experts without living the style; the hippies of the 60's, the punks and disco queens of the 70's, the hip-hop-heads of the 80's, the ravers of the 90's - these mutually exclusive music-based lifestyles went the way of the dodo by 2001, and are now the realm of the marginalized. Information is everywhere and life is sensory overload. I could read a review of a hot new band, download and skim the album, and dismiss them from my life within the span of an hour - a scary thing for someone who once lived the albums: waited months for the release, bought a physical copy and wore them out to validate my financial and emotional investment. YouTube is a blessing and a curse, one that frightens me yet I daily use.

2011 was a continuation of my recent attitude of no borders, anything-goes mash-up. I still refuse the majority of the mainstream, preferring my own little bubble of discovery, recommendations and absolute snobbery. It was another year largely dominated by electronic music, trying to keep abreast of the lingering wreckage of dubstep and its various off-shoots, while at the same time (paradoxically, I know) belittling and refusing the mainstream's new-found acceptance and championing of electronic music as the brain-numbing soundtrack to life's various empty hedonisms. Nuclear pap like Skrillex and the hideous lmfao (never will it be capitalized) has no space on my list except possibly as easy targets for my hate.

I lukewarmly believe that this new frontier without borders represents a paradigm in music, keeping with the flow and past trends of musical history. 20 years removed from the convulsion offered by Nirvana and its bastard ilk, we expect another revolution, a smack in the face, a simultaneous overthrow of standards, a raising of new gods. The revolution will not be as sudden, as violent; it will be gradual, exciting, borderless - a perpetual, everlasting, soul-numbing NOW.

Albums of the Year

30. Frank Ocean, nostalgia,ULTRA.

At the start of the year, Ocean was but one member of the highly hyped Odd Future collective, and a not very well known member at that. By the end of the year, his self-released mixtape was a critical rave on many year-end lists; his production and songwriting skills were deployed on the massive Kanye/Jay album Watch The Throne and by the likes of Beyonce, John Legend and Nas; he was ranked on BBC's taste-making Sound of 2012 list (eventually placing second); and is set to reap the rewards this year with his upcoming debut and a big performance at Coachella. This album hits you immediately (songs built on the instrumentals of Coldplay, Radiohead, The Eagles, etc. will ring instantly true), but it also grows in its subtlety. Ocean may be the member of a self-destructive rap group, but he has one of the richest voices in R&B, and he uses it liberally throughout, singing about relationships, reflection, and social commentary. Expect big things.

Swim Good

29. Dixon, Live at Robert Johnson, Vol. 8

German DJ Dixon has announced that this album will be his final commercially released mix: in addition, Frankfurt club Robert Johnson will concurrently cease their line of mixes. An unfortunate shame on both ends. Dixon was responsible for 2007's fourth edition of the Body Language series (one of my all-time favorites), and his mastery of mood is nothing but searing here. After a moody intro from P. Aladan, the mix goes into another moody selection from Ursula Bogner. In fact, the moodiness and floating serenity continues, and by the time you hear a kick drum anchoring some sort of beat, it is track 7 and half an hour into the mix! Gutsy move, but what else could you except from someone of Dixon's risk-taking reputation? The rest of the album is more upbeat, but subtle and reflective, a perfect come-down mix. Long live the format, regardless of the decision of both parties here.

Mark E - Call Me (Dixon Edit)

28. Kate Wax, Dust Collision

Tibetan-Swiss producer Kate Wax recorded her sophomore album for James Holden's Border Community label - it can be easily identified as a product of said label, sharing its arpeggios and deep night atmosphere, but its icy divide (a little something like Fever Ray, though not as off-kilter and dangerous) keeps you from being able to fully inhabit the grooves. It tries to keep you at arm's length, but it can't succeed when the atmosphere beckons you so.

Echoes And The Light

27. M83, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

It was only a matter. Anthony Gonzalez has been dreaming on ever expanding canvases since his band's 2003 breakthrough Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, and his vision arrives in startling, golden-hued Technicolor widescreen on this (naturally) double disc offering. It is not unlike a Boards of Canada album transplanted a decade forward, their wistful 70's childish memories erupting into Hughes-era teenage angst, fronted by a barely-tolerable emo whiner - there are many short interludes between the pop perfection, small stabs of sound knitting the album into a beautiful 70-plus minute wonder. It walks a very fine line between glory and chaos, but when you can keep a child-narrated story about a magic frog turning everyone into friends cute seven listens later, you have succeeded.


26. Danny Brown, XXX

How about losing a potentially lucrative contract with G-Unit because you refused a hair cut? Danny Brown's wildly asymmetrical haircut is likely not the cause of his still being underground: I would bet it is his manic voice and unruly personality, something like a chipmunk on uppers. Thanks to Fool's Gold release of the album as a free mixtape, and several glowing reviews, Brown's profile quickly rose and he is better off now than as a 50 Cent lackey. The XXX is a reference to his age, though the content would certainly fit; drugs, sex and violence are prominent features here, though they are rarely glorified. He knows his age is starting to catch up to him in a young man's game, and the drugs more often hinder him. The second half of the album devolves into his nightmares and abuses catching up with him, and it is a breathtaking suite of songs, making Brown a force to watch in coming years.

Radio Song

25. Fucked Up, David Comes to Life

Canada's elder statesmen of all things hip (if only) cement their calling to be this generation's Husker Du or Fugazi: intelligent, no-frills punk rock with consistent and increasingly quality. Their breakthrough was 2008's winner of Canada's Polaris Prize, and on the follow-up, they play it safe by crafting a collection of perfect pop gems - albeit in the form of an 18-track, 78-minute love story/rock opera about a lighbulb maker (David) in love with an activist (Veronica) in Thatcherite England who accidentally kills his love, feel remorse and is told by an acquaintance (Vivian) not to trust narration. He discovers he is a character in a story controlled by Octavio St. Laurent, and things get worse from there. Needless to say, you can enjoy Fucked Up's punishing three-guitar attack and Pink Eye's raspy screaming without delving too deep: this band is a peddler of straight-up rock music with a hardcore punk singer. An album of tremendous bravery and depth, one to cherish for years to come.

Turn The Season

24. Rustie, Glass Swords

Oh boo hoo, after slagging Skrillex in the intro, this guy goes onto champion an artist not altogether different from that hack's style: loud, maximalist dubstep/electro slathered in broad swathes of froth. But what froth... Where I find artists like this lacking in warmth, Rustie is clearly in on the joke. For all this album's white noise and stabbing synths, there is a distinct humor in his choices of instrumentation (a slap bass directly out of Seinfeld), and the honus is on pleasure: three melodies fighting for your attention, carefully and tighly coordinated to match perfectly. It is an overwhelming sonic barrage, but in the right mood it sounds like a crunk party in heaven.

Ultra Thizz

23. TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light

I was expecting something longer-lasting in TVOTR's announcement of a hiatus. There were so many side projects and production work since their most recent album (my top album of the last decade, ahem) that it never really seemed like they went away and built up anticipation for a new album. Add in bassist Gerald Smith's sudden passing mere weeks after its release, and the general lukewarm reception, and the most important band of the past decade was in danger of being lost in the shuffle. For shame. While this album may lack the fire and breadth that characterized their past work, this is no mere toss-off; this is a collection of slow-burning lover's rock for the post-apocalypse as only TVOTR could do. Time will reveal it to be a gem: hopefully also as a stepping stone back to greatness.

Second Song

22. Clams Casino, Instrumentals

Casino is a producer who also had a killer trajectory through the year: a number of his productions for lower-rank rappers like Lil B captured peoples' attention, and all of a sudden his collection of, yes, instrumentals was one of the most acclaimed discs of the year. And he doesn't even want to do this full time; he is studying to be a physical therapist! Whatever Casino does from here musically is to be seen, but he has made quite an impact on a hip-hop world that is increasingly enamoured with slower beats featuring warped female vocals.

Illest Alive

21. Motor City Drum Ensemble, DJ Kicks

The long-running K7! collection has seen a great second wind since last year's quartet of releases, and this year continued with another inspired bunch, no more so than Danilo Plessow's attempt to showcase his formidably wide-ranging influences in the space of a compact disc. Running the gamut from choral Sun Ra to Afrobeat to Mr. Fingers' distinctive house to ambient Aphex Twin, peaking with his own exuberant exclusive track "L.O.V.E." It perhaps won't do anything to silence those who proclaim the mix album's death, but it adds another sterling brick in the Kicks wall of fame.

L.O.V.E. (DJ Kicks)


For all the importance given to money in the hip-hop game, it seemed like A$AP broke an unspoken rule when bragging about the $3M contract he was offered solely on two videos that were regional hits in NYC. The backlash was strong, but turned into a wisp once his debut mixtape was dropped with the impact of a young Snoop Doggy Dogg (at least in the tightly controlled niche market of online hip-hop boards) - this is a "triumph of immaculate taste" (Pitchfork), a collection of beats ruled over by a capable MC who reps Harlem with the purple haze of Houston funk. Nimble wordplay is in short order, but the swagger and cool attitude in infectious. Who can tell where he goes from here, but with the right support, A$AP can quickly live up to his reputation.


19. James Blake, James Blake

Three extended plays was all it took to instantly set James Blake's debut under a blinding light of scrutiny. Those expecting the glittering dubstep brilliance of CMYK were likely disappointed to hear the post-bass serenity of Klavierwerke's style instead. Blake took the high road and followed his own path, refusing to cater to expectations - still, who would have thought he'd make one of the best songwriter albums of the year? It has had nearly a year to ferment (though a couple of uninspiring late-year EP's slightly took the bloom off), and I suspect it will be many more before its true meanings come to light.

I Never Learnt to Share

18. Kode9 & the Spaceape, Black Sun

An undisputed pioneer, a trailblazer who can rightly claim dubstep as primarily his creation, Steve Goodman, Ph.D, returns to fine form with his sophomore album featuring doom-voiced prophet Spaceape. There is a smaller emphasis here on bass, to the point that some tracks seem to lack sub; this void is filled by a relentless death march of percussion and unnerving snare attacks. The fidgety atmosphere is heightened by Spaceape's vocals, noticeably lighter and less treated than on 2006's Memories of the Future - he as often lurks around the shadows as full-on raps, and Shanghai vocalist Cha Cha is utilized to create an ethereal presence. By the time Flying Lotus drops in on the slowly-unfolding (and instantly silenced) "Kryon", the album's mysterious atmosphere has swallowed you whole.

Love Is The Drug

17. Jamie Jones, Fabric 59

There are few things in life better than a great mix album; they may show their age at some point, but a great one will forever captivate you (I am thinking in particular of Tiga's edition for DJ Kicks: its electroclash aesthetic is dated and cheesy, but a decade later I cannot disown the grooves). Jamie Jones' selections are pure pleasure center - although it is hardly smooth coming in or leaving, his drop of Felix Da Housecat's "Madame Hollywood" in the middle of the mix will raise hairs on your neck, and show not that electroclash is worth re-evaluating, but that any style is Jones's for the taking to create his house bedrock. The second half of the album is less about flawless mixing and more showcasing off-kilter house tracks in their entirety. A perfect balance of style monotony and eager overreaching.

Coat of Arms - Is This Something (Jones Fly Edit)

16. Wild Beasts, Smother

Poised for a breakthrough after the Mercury-nominated Two Dancers, Wild Beasts made a characteristically bold grasp for the crown with their third album, and in the process created a masterwork. Selfishly using the services of two wonderfully distinct singers (Hayden Thorpe's toned-down falsetto, and Tom Flemming's warm low tenor), this vulnerable and approachable suite of songs are achingly lovely, and speak of the beauty and pain that come with desire - where so much emotion is pent up and smothered it can only come out in whispers. The album rarely reaches a boiling point, but you would be content to blissfully float along.



This nameless, faceless producer (okay, so he has a name, but he predominantly wears a mask for anonymity) is a rising star within the legion of dubstep's attack on commercial validity. He has produced tracks for crossover UK star Katy B, and his own debut album was a surprise success; although it is unlikely to be played in a club, its commercial touches are a cut above the competition. He utilizes female vocalists on a few tracks, but it is with the slower, more nocturnal tracks that SBTRKT really shines, crafting sparse dubstep with well-crafted pop melodies, probably a little closer to what we were hoping James Blake's album would sound like. A small gem of a dance album to cherish.


14. Destroyer, Kaputt

Has Dan Bejar gone off the deep end? He has always been the most hyper-literate man in indie-dom, a Canadian wordsmith and pop genius in bands knee-deep in them (New Pornographers, Swan Lake), a fairly steady practicioner of straight-ahead indie pop/rock. So why the sharp left turn into 80's soft cheese and yacht rock? Why less Ziggy Stardust and more Avalon? Whatever the reason, by the third or fourth listen, it just comes together and works; Bejar has rarely sounded more at home than in this funhouse of Kenny G sax and soft rock drums. It is flawed, icily elegant, and above all fantastic.


13. Martyn, Ghost People

Dubstep's elders seemed to largely leave the game to the youngsters this year and went off in search of the past. Case in point: Dutch producer Martyn (he of the monstrously good 2009 Great Lengths skipped to FlyLo's Brainfeeder label for his follow-up, and while it cannot be compared to much of the label's recent skullduggery, he obviously took great pleasure in crafting what could be a love letter to the house of his youth (no, not the one on the cover). Token nod to dubstep aside (Spaceape on the intro!), Martyn quickly asserts a steady 4/4 rhythm that will rarely wane throughout; rough bass and bristly melodies will frequently interrupt, and although the second half is bogged down by a couple of lesser tracks, the whole thing reaches a euphoric climax (or three) in the nine-minute epic closer "We Are You In The Future". It puts a massive exclamation point on a solid album.

We Are You In The Future

12. Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact

The forward shift of 2008's Saint Dymphna is not a thing to be replicated, nor should Gang Gang Dance have striven to replicate it. What they do in following up such a vital and ground-shattering album is simply more of the same, but more refined. It takes stones to open up a heavily anticipated album with a kosmiche-like 11-minute warm-up track, and then stay in the same vein on the following tracks. There are no wild mood shifts here, but a steady demeanor, a rhythmic journey designed to be taken in as one. The ride is smoother, the tunes increasingly melodic - it is hardly mainstream, but an album like this deserves bona-fide pop stardom.

Thru and Thru

11. Kuedo, Severant

Jamie Vex'd takes a break from crafting apocalyptic dubstep and turns his attention to replicating the 80's, the glory days of Vangelis soundtracks and Jan Hammer TV music. In fact, this album owes nothing to his previous productions - this is 80s synth music filtered through a 21st century percussive mindset, weighed down by sci-fi tropes and human longing and regret. Haunting (haunted?) arpeggios are anchored by kick drums: warm whooshes of turbine wind are ratcheted by huge thumps; jumbled footwork patterns interrupt the stately bass; the BPM is all over the map despite the uniform synths. This is future nostalgia done right (but soon to be bettered).

Flight Path

10. The Weeknd, House of Balloons

The peak story in the batch of the year's out-of-nowhere success stories, Abel Tesfaye started 2011 somewhere (definitely in Canada) and ended it on top of the world: a self-released trilogy of mixtapes acclaimed as few others were, guest spots on Drake's blockbuster Take Care, a future limited only by his well-documented insecurities. Although I would argue that not all of the trilogy is worth the hype, and his truly abhorrent Twitter feed is one that should be avoided at all costs, the first installment at least is solid gold, perhaps more so because of its complete packaging: this was truly out of the blue, a perfectly formed meld of R&B/indie rock/torch song melodrama. Tesfaye can sing like a demon because of his demons; there is rarely a moment that isn't rife with self-loathing, or an acute self-awareness of his self-destructive behavior, the glamorization of anti-glamor, all empty sex and drugs and empty soul. Who knows how it will hold up, but something about House of Balloons caught the 2011 zeitgeist and bottled it up in a toxic brew for us all.

The Knowing

9. Nicolas Jaar, Space Is Only Noise

Well, sometimes newcomers in the realm of electronic music have the power to completely baffle and unnerve even a seasoned listener. It happened in 2003 with Villalobos' Alcachofa and in 2006 with Burial's self-titled debut, and now it has happened with Jaar's debut. It would be a misnomer to label this as, simply, "electronic". There are so many things going on (and with some much dead air between it all!), so many different and disparate elements, that it's best to give up trying to understand and let the music take you where it will. It is similar to Blake's debut as vocal-oriented electronic music, obsessed with the producer's voice as texture, its use of space - but the places it takes you is unparalleled.


8. Opeth, Heritage

Perhaps Opeth's turn into soft prog rock surprised you? Maybe you have been missing their prog tendencies exhibited since, oh, 1999? For all the critical acclaim, it truly pays to hear reaction firsthand from the fans: during their October concert I attended, people were completely pent-up waiting for a death growl to set them free to mosh; after the concert, they gamely spoke of how "mellow", "laid-back", "relaxed" Opeth was, as if it couldn't be gleaned from the album. These guys have been a masterclass in doing progressive rock and metal for ages, and just because there are no death growls on display does not make this any less of a pure musical observation from a vital and hard-hitting metal band. It might take a couple of listens to accept the lightness, but Heritage is simply fantastic.


7. Andy Stott, Passed Me By / We Stay Together

Two EP's in no aspects but name: these are two full-length albums (35 minutes is still an LP, right?) are dark as mud, spiralling ever downward into a black hole of sound, akin to Mezzanine if Massive Attack were trying to out-pop the Backstreet Boys. Dub techno filtered into its most primordial and primitive state, all drums and oppressive bass stifling you in the muck. The second EP is a bit lighter in execution: where the first EP slowly self-destructed, Together at least tries to hold itself together through the assault. Stott is not a household name, and I doubt this voodoo exorcism music is going to make him one.

Dark Details

6. Four Tet, Fabriclive 59

Kieran Hebden has already proven his worth as a tastemaking DJ with a sterling DJ Kicks edition six years ago, a mix that brought together Animal Collective, Curtis Mayfield and Autechre. His Friday night mix for the Fabric nightclub is another marvel in mixing and style amalgamation: he takes us on a dizzying ride through garage, 2-step and broken beat that are leavened by field recordings made in the club itself, as if you were moving from room to room in a maze of muffled bass and distended voices. The selection is impeccable and tasteful, vinyl cuts and obscure gems from the 90s onwards; the mixing is flawless; and of course the self-promotion is welcomed with two lengthy new tracks that serve as a huge banger ("Pyramid"), and the inevitable Sunday morning come-down ("Locked"). After a near-perfect studio album last year, Four Tet has delivered his second near-perfect mix album. Keep 'em coming!


5. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up

If you've ever thought to yourself "dang, I miss Digable Planets...what are they up to these days?", the answer is, um, making incredibly acclaimed future-thinking rap music, not unlike when they were together. To be fair, this isn't Digable Planets, but rather that group's MC Ishmael Butler ("Palaceer Lazaro") and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire - and this is about as rap as Cannibal Ox was just a rap group. This is next-level hip-hop that I, an amateur listener at best, can only describe as something beyond anything heard before. Brash, swimming in bass, opaque, uninterested in the past, comparisons can be drawn to Mount Kimbie, Anticon, El-P, Digital Mystikz, Captain Beefheart. Who wants to try to define this?

Are you... Can you... Were you? (Felt)

4. The Field, Looping State of Mind

Hearing From Here We Go Sublime (2007) on crappy iPod headplugs in Frankfurt Airport was a revelation; blasting Yesterday and Today (2009) through a VW's powerful speakers gave me goosebumps; listening to Looping State of Mind (2011) through circum-aural Sennheiser headphones blew my mind. There is something very Germanic about Sweden's Axel Willner that goes beyond his association with the Kompakt label. There is a brute efficiency about the way he uses loops to create his layered works, and the muscle, the brawn and heart that he brings to this album is unmatched in his discography. From the way the opener "Is This Power" answers its own question quite emphatically in the affirmative, this is the Field given a booster shot of adrenaline. The tempos aren't higher than four years ago; the layers aren't necessarily more dense; but something about this album grabs you by the throat and does not let go.

Then It's White

3. Anna Calvi, Anna Calvi

Blood-red lips; hair in a tight bun; the male matador's outfit; the tightly controlled and sparse guitar attack - everything about Calvi screams POLLY JEAN. But in a year when Polly Jean herself went soft, Anna Calvi brought the old fire. An innate understanding of classical music, of musical catharsis, of Piaf and Callas and Simone, of impressionistic composers and guitar pioneers: Calvi brings all these to the table on her debut album and strikes with ferocity. There is a lot of open space for her to snake her unique guitar sound and operatic voice around: percussion and other instrumentation is sparse, and the songs live and breathe with Calvi's unique vision. It is seductive and powerful, a rejection of current musical tides, a unique recycling of past tropes by fresh youth to cherish.

Suzanne and I

2. Machinedrum, Room(s)

Locked into the militant rhythms of footwork (a Chicago based, percussion-heavy off-shoot of electronic music that has created YouTube sensations of dancers but not usually of producers), Travis Stewart's ninth album as Machinedrum (he records under a veritable pantheon of aliases, including Sepalcure) could be the album that breaks footwork to the masses, or could be just another element of early 21st century bass music for future generations to analyze. Whatever its fate, Room(s) sparkles with a warm human element through all the machinery: all the tracks prominently feature a human voice, heavily processed but joyous and bright. Best of all, the sequencing is one of the finest of the year: this was clearly meant to be heard as a single work rather than a singles work, tracks blending into each other and going through pronounced peaks and valleys. It may be off-putting to some, but complete albums like this are rare to come by.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

1. Oneohtrix Point Never, Replica

Daniel Lopatin's experimental project is above the mere 80s pastiching that has been prevalent in the indie and electronic communities for the past few years: his earlier works, composed on vintage synthesizers and redolent of 80s technology, were unmistakably from now. However, this album goes all meta on us: Lopatin describes it as a "song cycle based around lo-fi audio procured from television advertisement compilations" - split-second snatches of old commercials are rearranged into tasty morsels of audio gold for the aging hipsters who were children at the time these commercials aired. Before you accuse me of caving into childhood nostalgia and championing an album for what is stunt editing and production, a disclaimer: I cannot claim to have had a flashback to my youth while listening to Replica. In fact, my childhood is much hazier than I would hazard is normal, and a crackle of sound from a detergent commercial from 1987 won't have me rushing out to buy an album from today. Maybe this is wishful thinking for the return of Boards of Canada. Whatever it is, Lopatin strikes a magic chord with this work, and although it is a slippery creature almost impossible to pin down and define, it is the most emblematic of the present's eternal yearning for the past, and as such, it captures not only an indescribable feeling, but also my Album of the Year accolade.


Songs of the Year

Burial - Street Halo

Friendly Fires - Hawaiian Air

Adele - Rolling in the Deep

Radiohead - Lotus Flower

Dream Theater - On the Backs of Angels

St. Vincent - Cruel

Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire ft. Despot, Das Racist, Danny Brown, EL-P - The Last Huzzah

Girls - Vomit

Battles - Ice Cream

EMA - California

Tyler the Creator - Yonkers

tUnE-yArDs - Bizness

Kendrick Lamar - A.D.H.D.

Lady Gaga - Born This Way

Lykke Li - I Follow Rivers

Jay-Z & Kanye West - Ni**as in Paris

Kurt Vile - Jesus Fever

Lady Gaga - The Edge of Glory

Mastodon - Curl of the Burl

Drake ft. The Weeknd - Crew Love

Friendly Fires - Live Those Days Tonight

M83 - Midnight City